Roman Catholics commonly believe that an important linchpin to their dogmas is an idea called “doctrinal development.” This is an idea not popular among Protestants and the Orthodox. Protestants believe they have resurrected the original teaching of the Apostles that has since been lost. Orthodox often assert that “our doctrine has remained unchanged for 2,000 years.”

To counter Orthodox on the issue, detractors popularly list the following three big doctrinal issues within Orthodoxy because they appear to be the result of “doctrinal development:”

  • Trinitarian and Christological doctrine
  • The veneration of icons
  • The energy-essence distinction

If these doctrines were the result of “development,” then the logic follows, all sorts of doctrines that have only a “seed” in the Scriptures and are not even contemplated by the fathers can turn out to be, centuries later, genuine dogmas of the Church.

Many Orthodox would be quick to respond by quoting Saint Vincent de Lerins, who said in the Commonitorium, “[W]e hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all…we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers” (Par 6).

Yet, these proponents of doctrinal development assert, this is a misreading of Saint Vincent, who said:

Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it (Par 54)?

For it is right that those ancient doctrines of heavenly philosophy should, as time goes on, be cared for, smoothed, polished” (Par 57).

So, does this justify the seed theory? How do we know what is a legitimate doctrinal development and what’s not? Do we need a Pope to infallibly weigh in on the legitimate vis a vis illegitimate developments to prevent chaos? Let’s see what Saint Vincent says on the issue.

Vincent de Lerins’ stance on doctrinal development. Let me begin by summarizing what I believe is Saint Vincent’s “theory of doctrinal development.” He believed that doctrines developed, but in their terminology–not their existence. So, when he says:

Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else…the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress… (Par 54)

It is important to keep reading and see how he defines a legitimate doctrinal development:

…but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning (Par 54).

We see the same idea re-asserted in Paragraph 57:

For it is right that those ancient doctrines of heavenly philosophy should, as time goes on, be cared for, smoothed, polished; but not that they should be changed, not that they should be maimed, not that they should be mutilated. They may receive proof, illustration, definiteness; but they must retain withal their completeness, their integrity, their characteristic properties.

So, to treat huge topics very briefly, doctrinal developments are something with a legitimate, widely acknowledged basis in history. So, while we may lack the formal distinctions pertaining to hypostasis and essence when discussing Trinitarian doctrine, what cannot be doubted is that all three Persons of the Trinity have always been worshiped as God and there was no debate about this among the Apostles or the fathers. Saint Justin Martyr during the second century wrote:

And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. But both Him, and the Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like to Him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been taught (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap 6).

It would be superfluous to quote Saint Irenaeus, Tertullian, Saint Hippolytus, and Novatian writing in detail about the same topic. The point is that Trinitarian doctrine “receive[d] proof, illustration, definiteness” over the centuries, but it was not “new.” Justin Martyr understood the same doctrine–just in different words than Nicea.

Our categories get more definite when we respond to falsehoods, whether they be that Christ was a created god (Origen), an angel or aeon (the Gnostics), a divine manifestation of a unitarian God (Modalists), or God but of a separate essence than the Father (Arianism and semi-Arianism). It is pretty obvious that Saint Justin Martyr would have accepted none of the preceding speculation (and I disagree that chapter 61 of Dialogue with Trypho would assert that Christ is created).

Why is this important? Saint Vincent believed that unless a development was based upon “complete” and “characteristic properties,” the result would be false doctrines. He immediately writes in the next paragraph:

For if once this license of impious fraud [aberrant development] be admitted, I dread to say in how great danger religion will be of being utterly destroyed and annihilated. For if any one part of Catholic truth be given up, another, and another, and another will thenceforward be given up as a matter of course, and the several individual portions having been rejected, what will follow in the end but the rejection of the whole (Par 58)?

So, no doctrine can develop from nothing, practically nothing, or from a once inconsequential minority opinion. It has to be substantial and evident–perhaps rudimentary and differing in terminology, but essentially the same doctrine.

So, while there was debate in the early Church about how relics and Christian art were venerated (the following link contains explicit proof of mid third century veneration), the fact of the matter is that veneration itself always existed. We have found first century Christian art used for worship in Pompei! The theological distinctions, such as dulia and latria, still had to be worked out. But, the doctrine was always there.

But the Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what is another’s, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view — if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it, if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it, if any already ratified and defined, to keep and guard it. Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude (Par 59)?

As we can see, this is exactly the mind of Saint Vincent and the fathers. If one reads any ecumenical council, one will find that it is insistent it is clarifying the ancient, universal teaching of the Church. What you never read is “this developed over time,” “we have the Holy Spirit and so now we are being prophetic,” or “the Pope has infallibly defined it so we can be sure of this though the fathers have been always unaware of this.” Such categories of thought never existed. Hence, any theory of doctrinal development that does not presume that all doctrines of the Church are unchanged is incorrect. Developed doctrines have always existed in some form or otherwise they’d be false. After all, the faith was once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3)–not some aspect of that faith developed until it was realized at some point.

According to Saint Vincent, developed doctrines cannot be minority views existing in one corner of Christendom. One application of this may be the suspicion Orthodox Christians harbor of the Roman Catholic doctrine of immaculate conception. If the immaculate conception has never been accepted by Orthodox because they never heard of it, all the apparitions in the world egging people on to adhere to the doctrine are inconsequential.  Saint Vincent gives us insight into this:

“Profane novelties of words,” [1 Tim 6:20] that is, of doctrines, subjects, opinions, such as are contrary to antiquity and the faith of the olden time. Which if they be received, it follows necessarily that the faith of the blessed fathers is violated either in whole, or at all events in great part; it follows necessarily that all the faithful of all ages, all the saints, the chaste, the continent, the virgins, all the clergy, Deacons and Priests, so many thousands of Confessors, so vast an army of martyrs, such multitudes of cities and of peoples, so many islands, provinces, kings, tribes, kingdoms, nations, in a word, almost the whole earth, incorporated in Christ the Head, through the Catholic faith, have been ignorant for so long a tract of time, have been mistaken, have blasphemed, have not known what to believe, what to confess (Par 61).

Saint Vincent viewed the heresies of his day as total innovations, not minority interpretations with ancient origins. For example, he writes:

Who ever originated a heresy that did not first dissever himself from the consistent agreement of the universality and antiquity of the Catholic Church? That this is so is demonstrated in the clearest way by examples. For who ever before that profane Pelagius attributed so much antecedent strength to Free-will, as to deny the necessity of God’s grace to aid it towards good in every single act? Who ever before his monstrous disciple Cœlestius denied that the whole human race is involved in the guilt of Adam’s sin? Who ever before sacrilegious Arius dared to rend asunder the unity of the Trinity? Who before impious Sabellius was so audacious as to confound the Trinity of the Unity? Who before cruellest Novatian represented God as cruel in that He had rather the wicked should die than that he should be converted and live (Par 62)?

For example, if no one before:

  • Pelagius taught that God’s grace was not necessary for every good act, or
  • Novatian taught certain sins cannot be given penance for,

it would seem the opposite was true. The Church has always upheld that grace was necessary for every good act and that all sins can be given a penance (even if it mean no communion until one’s deathbed). Some readers here might dispute the historicity of such claims, but they would be hard pressed to.

When a doctrinal dispute occurs, the reason it is a controversy is because people feel that they never heard of some new idea. However, when countering the wrong idea, they are forced to elaborate some sort of doctrine against it, forging it on the anvil of what the Church knows to be not true. So, if the necessity of grace or the opportunity for penance are unspoken because they are taken for granted, it sometimes takes someone to make something new up to actually devise in one’s mind what was once taken for granted.

This is not some sort of rhetorical sophistry, but is basic common sense. It is all too common that when something tragic happens, like someone dies, that people only then appreciate certain really important things about that person that went unnoticed during their lifetime. So, obviously what was appreciated was always there–it just took it being taken away for the appreciation to be explicitly recognized.

Though we want to be careful in pushing this analogy too far, the veneration of icons is one such application. In the imperial Eastern Roman Empire, iconography was illegalized. So, when the second council of Nicea devised the dulia-latria distinction, it was more immediately recognized that this justified the ancient practice of the Church against iconoclasts. In the West, where statuary and other art was even more common and never illegal, the theological distinctions of Nicea II did not get immediate recognition. As we can see, it usually requires something really bad to appreciate more profoundly something really good.

To perhaps stretch this concept to its very limit, we have the energy-essence distinction forged by the Palamite Councils. In short, Barlaam of Calabria denied that God could be known at all to due His inimitability. On one hand, he was correct: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). Yet, man has seen God–“He hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). So, what Barlaam was teaching was wrong on one hand, but correct on the other.

The truth was more well-rounded than what Barlaam presented. There is something about God that is unknowable, yet He is knowable at the same time. Palamas cited the Scriptures and the fathers to teach this idea. He also cited earlier ascetic practice from the Scriptures and Church History as well pre-existing philosophical concepts. I cannot help but think that the energy-essence distinction was unknowingly anticipated during the Council of Blachernae in 1285, which said in its tenth point:

This grace of the Spirit is poured forth, and it is neither novel nor alien to Scripture were it to be called by the same name as Holy Spirit. For, sometimes, an act (ἐνέργεια, lit. “energy”) is identified by the name of the one who acts, since frequently we do not refuse to call “sun” the sun’s own luster and light.

St Vincent was aware that the more recent the heresy, the more recent the Church would have councils (such a Blachernae vis a vis controversies a century later) or fathers speaking against it. If a heresy was extremely ancient, such as Papal Supremacy in the eyes of the Orthodox, our sources are much fewer (i.e. Eusebius, Cyprian, and Firmilian). In these cases, our reliance upon the Scriptures, as the earliest source material, is more important. Furthermore, as we can see, we weigh our sources according to the holiness of those who were writing:

[A]s to the more ancient schisms or heresies, we ought either to confute them, if need be, by the sole authority of the Scriptures, or at any rate, to shun them as having been already of old convicted and condemned by universal councils of the Catholic Priesthood.

Therefore, as soon as the corruption of each mischievous error begins to break forth, and to defend itself by filching certain passages of Scripture, and expounding them fraudulently and deceitfully, immediately, the opinions of the ancients in the interpretation of the Canon are to be collected, whereby the novelty, and consequently the profaneness, whatever it may be, that arises, may both without any doubt be exposed, and without any tergiversation [sic] be condemned. But the opinions of those Fathers only are to be used for comparison, who living and teaching, holily, wisely, and with constancy, in the Catholic faith and communion, were counted worthy either to die in the faith of Christ, or to suffer death happily for Christ (Par 71-2).

From the preceding we can derive two principles. First, that the truth is in the Scriptures so that if there were no patristic writings bequeathed to us, we can settle the issue from them. Second, the truth is Spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14) and so holiness of life is necessary in discerning the quality of our sources and interpretations.

Some may take issue with the idea that the Scriptures alone can settle a doctrinal issue. However, Saint Vincent explicitly upheld the view that the Scriptures were materially sufficient. When he begins concluding his work he writes the following:

We said above, that it has always been the custom of Catholics, and still is, to prove the true faith in these two ways; first by the authority of the Divine Canon, and next by the tradition of the Catholic Church. Not that the Canon alone does not of itself suffice for every question, but seeing that the more part, interpreting the divine words according to their own persuasion, take up various erroneous opinions, it is therefore necessary that the interpretation of divine Scripture should be ruled according to the one standard of the Church’s belief, especially in those articles on which the foundations of all Catholic doctrine rest (Par 76).

As we can see, the issue is not that the Bible “alone does not of itself suffice for every question,” but that due to man’s fallenness in interpreting the Scriptures the Church’s universal interpretation is always necessary. Hence, a doctrinal development, if legitimate, must have some Scriptural basis that is sufficiently clear, let alone some clear basis in the writings and practices of the fathers throughout Church history.

To conclude, some readers may be thinking, “So what, Saint Vincent is just one guy. His theory of doctrinal development could be wrong.” Luckily for Vincent, he already anticipated such a critique and asserted that the Council of Ephesus agreed with him:

[W]hich lest we should seem to allege presumptuously on our own warrant rather than on the authority of the Church, we appealed to the example of the holy council which some three years ago was held at Ephesus in Asia, in the consulship of Bassus and Antiochus, where, when question was raised as to the authoritative determining of rules of faith, lest, perchance, any profane novelty should creep in, as did the perversion of the truth at Ariminum, the whole body of priests there assembled, nearly two hundred in number, approved of this as the most Catholic, the most trustworthy, and the best course, viz., to bring forth into the midst the sentiments of the holy Fathers, some of whom it was well known had been martyrs, some Confessors, but all had been, and continued to the end to be, Catholic priests, in order that by their consistent determination the reverence due to ancient truth might be duly and solemnly confirmed, and the blasphemy of profane novelty condemned (Par 78).

As we can see, the Council of Ephesus decided that the way to discern a true council from a robber council was by “bring[ing] forth…the sentiments of the holy Fathers…in order that by their consistent determination the reverence due to ancient truth might be duly and solemnly confirmed.” This always remains the rule for Orthodox Christians for our discernment into all matters.

Conclusion. When it pertains to doctrinal development, we can summarize the following:

  • Doctrines that develop are always based upon a clearly understood and widespread earlier doctrines, so that a development shares “the same sense and…the same meaning” (Par 54) as an earlier doctrine.
  • Doctrines are never “changed,” but rather “retain their completeness, their integrity, their characteristic properties(Par 57).
  • The point of doctrinal development is so to take “what was before believed in simplicity” and word it in such a way so that it “be believed intelligently” (Par 59)–not to elaborate upon something that was not conceived of or thought of clearly, which is what the “seed theory” would appear to teach.
  • Ecumenical Councils, which formulated dogmas and developed doctrines, always explicitly asserted they were expounding the ancient and universal beliefs of the Church–not making something clear which was before not appreciated by the Church at large because it was a “tiny seed.”
  • When developing a doctrine, earlier precedent must be found among men who’s holiness of life serves as proof the said doctrine’s veracity. Hence, superior syllogisms and logic are not the means of developing doctrine, unless said logic was employed by holy men within the Church.